College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #158 to #156

158. Morrissey, Viva Hate (1988)

The ink on the death certificate of the Smiths was still moist when the group’s lead singer, lengthily known as Steve Patrick Morrissey, released his full-length solo debut, Viva Hate. For the faithful, who saw the majestically maudlin bloke as the poet of his age, the album was cause for celebration, because this would surely provide the purest version of his unique swooning misery. Others were not nearly as enthused. Lest anyone think that withering appraisals of Morrissey are a new phenomenon, inspired by his hideous politic views and penchant for exhausting grievance, allow me to share in full the contemporaneous review of Viva Hate that appeared in The Tennessean:

I don’t know when I’ve heard such self-indulgent twaddle. This is 30 minutes of almost unrelenting tuneless moaning.

This guy takes himself so seriously. To hear him sing it, you’d think “I love you” was the most profound utterance in human history. It’s one thing to be depressed and write juvenile tortured poetry about it. It’s another to parade it in front of the public as Art.

I hate this record.

If that assessment, the handiwork of Robert K. Oermann, is more brutal than most, it’s also not an outlier. Morrissey’s solo bow was greeted by a slew of unmoved critical retorts. Too many of those reviews included offhand homophobia and can be dismissed as bigotry masquerading as reasoned cultural commentary. There were plenty of others, though, that genuinely met the artist where he was and found him lacking.

Maybe part of the problem was that Morrissey made some clumsy attempts to distance himself from his prior band, thereby unfairly discarding lingering appreciation that he had earned. Yes, Morrissey chose to work closely with Stephen Street, who served as engineer on several recording by the Smiths and co-produced the band’s final studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come, but he also made aggressive attempts to strike a new tone, even as his creative impulse keep hewing back to the Smiths’ brand of crisp, elegant pop. The album opens with “Alsatian Cousin,” which makes a statement of difference with a squawky guitar part that’s miles away from Johnny Marr’s lithe, smooth, six-string melodies that helped significantly in defines the Smiths’ sound. There’s a protests-too-much quality to track, The orchestral gravity brought to “Angel, Angel Down We Go Together” and the gently lounge-like tinkering on “Break Up the Family” are similarly unconvincing in their strident scuttling away from expectations. The anti-Thatcher “Margaret on the Guillotine” is so pleased in its courting of controversy that it lands like a little kid giggling as he utters a prohibited swear.

Compromises as the album might be, the music writers who found nothing to admire on Viva Hate were being as childishly reactionary as Morrissey at his most regrettably indulgent. Unsurprisingly, the album is best when Morrissey takes the artistic tone and tenor of the Smith and builds on it rather than rejects it. “Everyday Is Like Sunday” is aswirl is lush, lovely melody, and “Suedehead” is irresistibly jaunty in its wounded teen drama (“You had to sneak into my room/ Just to read my diary/ ‘It was just to see, just to see’/ All the things you knew I’d written about you”). “I Don’t Mind If Your Forget Me” is a prime example of Morrissey’s endlessly amusing magic trick of putting glumly self-pitying lyrics to bouncy music and making the unlikely match seem as logical as the famed chocolate and peanut butter pairing. “The Ordinary Boys” is a ballad so splendidly rendered that it Morrissey’s choice to excise it from future rereleases, evidently out of spite to collaborators who claim they weren’t probably credited, adds to the lengthy scroll of evidence against his character.

I admit it’s difficult to fairly assess Viva Hate, especially now. Morrissey already brought a lot of baggage at the time of the album’s release. A few decades later, what he drags along with him would exhaust the most resilient baggage handlers at O’Hare. In the end, maybe Viva Hate is flawed in a way not especially dissimilar from most albums: sometimes winning, sometimes meh, sometimes forgettable.

157. Phil Collins, Face Value (1981)

“Two years ago, I got divorced,” Phil Collins explained not long after the release of Face Value, his debut solo album. “I had a wife and two kids, and all of a sudden I didn’t have a wife and two kids. But I had a lot of time on my hands and I was depressed, so I decided to channel my energy into writing music. The album grew out of that.”

So Collins had a surplus of material, and much of it maybe seemed too personal to bring into the collaborative churn of his day gig as drummer and lead singer of the band Genesis. What’s more, his two bandmates, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, had released solo albums within the previous year or two. Even if there wasn’t exactly ravenous demand for a Collins solo album (for perspective, Genesis had only two middling U.S. Top 40 singles to their name), the time was right to do it in every other respect. Collins chose the title Face Value as an expression of the straightforward plainness of the endeavor.

Collins at last had a helluva single to start with. “In the Air Tonight” is striking and evocative, with lyrics that seethe, music that feels genuinely different in its sonic expressiveness, and a tumbling-avalanche drum part that is spectacularly distinctive. It was a major hit across the globe, peaking at or near the top of the chart just about everywhere. The U.S. was an exception; the song climbed no higher than #19, the exact same peak as the blandly poppy follow-up single, “I Missed Again.” The song might have slightly missed the mark initially, but its position as a pop culture as an exemplar of aching cool was cemented three years later when it anchored the pilot episode of Miami Vice.

The rest of Face Value is aligned with the later, commercially unstoppable solo output of Collins, by which I mean it’s mostly very good with an occasional spark of real inventiveness. There are limp ballads (“This Must Be Love” and “If Leaving Me Is Easy”) and warm-bathwater fusion jazz mostly distinguished by Collins trying to belt like a heavy metal singer atop it (“Thunder and Lightning”). “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a fussy cover of the Beatles classic that is not even worthy of B-side status. Maybe the most telling track is “Behind the Lines,” a reworking of a song from the 1980 Genesis album, Duke, that shunts aside the previous approach of prog rock synth freakout in favor of dippy, thinned-out white-boy soul. “Droned” is a finely frenetic instrumental, but it also feels like an afterthought.

Face Value was successful enough (it outperformed those solo outing from Banks and Rutherford, for example), but there was no sense that it was the opening salvo to a major solo career. Collins and Genesis were at the beginning of a commercial upswing at the time. Four years later, Collins would become, somewhat improbably, one of the biggest hitmakers of the decade.

156. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hard Promises (1981)

The Rolling Stone cover shows Tom Petty tearing a dollar bill in half and the copy below his name reads, “ONE MAN’S WAR AGAINST HIGH RECORD PRICES.” In the accompanying article, Petty laments the battle with his own record label that inspired the image.

“I seem to attract problems,” Petty said. “And it may look romantic, but I ain’t Robin Hood, man.”

The skirmish that inspired the cover story started when MCA Records, the parent company of Petty’s label, Backstreet Records, announced that the Florida rocker’s new album with backing band the Heartbreakers would carry a list price of $9.98, a buck more than most releases. The deliberate inflation was part of a “superstar pricing” initiative, previously employed with Steely Dan’s Gaucho and the soundtrack to the Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu. Petty objected, insisting that the increase needlessly gouged consumers. The album’s release was delayed for months as the conflict played out. Petty and his bandmates considered naming the album Eight Nighty-Eight in protest or withdrawing it altogether. Finally, the label relented. Hard Promises, the group’s fourth studio album, was released at the lower price they preferred.

The songwriting and performing on Hard Promises is just as admirable as the fight-the-power backstory of its journey to record stores. This is Petty at or near his peak. Album opener “The Waiting” is among his very best songs, a competition packed with mighty competitors, and “Something Big” is riveting storytelling that suggests a man at the edge of desperation against cool-shuffle music. “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” is lean and fierce, and Petty has maybe never sounded more anguished than he does when singing the lines “I don’t understand the world today/ I don’t understand what she needed/ I gave her everything, she threw it all away on nothin’/ She’s a woman in love.”

“Letting You Go” is similar to the throwback rock John Mellencamp was making around the same time, though delivered with more ease and assurance. “Insider” and “You Can Still Change Your Mind” are affecting ballads boosted by distinctive backing vocals from Stevie Nicks (it should be noted, though, that Nicks clearly got the better of the divvying of studio team-ups because she claimed the absolutely perfect “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” for her solo debut, Bella Donna). Petty’s facility for erasing boundaries between genres is heard on “A Thing About You,” which forecasts the rock-soaked country to comes from the likes of Steve Earle. Fittingly, the song became a country-rock hit a couple years later for the band Southern Pacific.

Hard Promises was the second straight album from Petty and his Heartbreakers to crack the Billboard Top 5. Also like its predecessor, the commercial breakthrough Damn the Torpedos, it went platinum. Petty and his bandmates were clearly doing well enough to afford letting those extra singles stay in their fans’ pockets.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.

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